Help from their Friends
How Naples Wood Products - four full-time employees strong - pulled off the striking $1.17 million millwork package at Calusa Pines Golf Club.
By Anthony Noel
"Word of mouth." The phrase is almost a proverb in the woodworking business, and it's easy to understand why.
Unlike purveyors of other big-ticket items, who count on seducing buyers with slickly produced advertising and marketing campaigns, woodworkers create their messages in the shop - and the only spokesperson who really matters is their customer.
Jay Mathews knows a thing or two about crafting messages in wood.
Almost 10 years ago, he got involved with a golf course project, "out in the Everglades, out in the swamps," the 58-year-old recalls with a smile.
"And it was kind of an 'old-feeling,' typical 'Florida-type-feeling' golf club, as opposed to a country club," Mathews adds. "There's a huge difference. A country club involves the tennis, the swimming pool, the families, the women, the bridge clubs, yada, yada, yada."
But this place - called, aptly, Olde Florida - had nary a "yada" in sight.
"[It was] designed, you know, for golfers. They had, if I recall, about 30 women's lockers and 300 men's lockers," Mathews says. "There was a distinct difference in some of these clubs; old leather sofas, smelly socks and a little room the size of this one" - he spreads his arms towards the walls of his modest office - "called 'The Ladies' Grill Room.'"
In many ways, that club was just another millwork project at Mathews' former companies, which he operated with partners from 1988 through 1999. However, in March of 1999, with a partner and 30-plus employees, Mathews recalls, "I had blood pressure numbers that looked like speeding ticket fines. I literally woke up one morning and said, 'I've had enough.'"
Within days, Mathews and his partner mutually agreed to go their separate ways. Mathews opted to downsize significantly. "I moved into a shop of 1,600 square feet with two employees. That was the start of Naples Wood Products Inc.," he says.
While Mathews started up his new venture, the word-of-mouth machine sprang to life. Olde Florida stood in silent testimony to his talents for coordinating the creation of something special.
The tip of the iceberg
"I get a call in, I think it was early August of 2001, from a gentleman named Gary Chensoff," Mathews remembers. Several years had passed since his decision to downsize.
"And it started out, 'I understand you did the woodwork in the clubhouse at Olde Florida,'" he says. "'Well, I'm building a golf course and clubhouse, and I really liked what I saw. Are you interested in doing it?' he continued."
Chensoff, a Chicagoan, was talking about Calusa Pines Golf Club, and its story is nothing short of amazing.
"They had these two little trailers that they had six weeks to turn into a temporary clubhouse," Mathews explains, "including building a pro shop, a bar and everything else in a temporary trailer."
"And I want it old-looking," Mathews says Chensoff told him. "It can't look new. Nothing can look like it was just built."
"We did the temporary clubhouse in river-reclaimed southern yellow pine, old, beat-up, distressed," Mathews remembers. "My guys were going out the back door and members were coming in the front door. We literally put out about $114,000 worth of stuff in a time frame of five weeks so they could open on Oct. 31."
"And I kind of developed a rapport with [Chensoff] where he'd say, 'This is what I want' and I'd say, 'Well, you can pay me once or pay me twice.'" Mathews laughs. "He'd say, 'What do you mean?' And I'd say, 'Well, we can decide that's really not what you want and this is what you really need, or we can build it your way, and I'll get to do it again and get paid twice.'"
Mathews' honest approach would prove valuable; just a year after the temporary clubhouse was complete, Chensoff called again. He was ready to start on the permanent one, and he wanted Mathews involved. Though the owner effusively described his vision, little could Mathews have suspected the true scale of the project.
Today, even with the $1.17 million Calusa Pines millwork package under his belt, he still seems awestruck.
A place like no other
Somewhere, at this moment, a writer for a golf course design magazine may well be slaving away on the details of how Gary Chensoff converted acre after acre of loamy Florida landscape into a lush golf oasis that, even among the endless number of elite courses in the Naples area, stands alone.
For our purposes, we'll let it suffice to say that building the Calusa Pines golf course meant moving millions of yards of soil, and created Collier County's K2 (the regional landfill being Everest). The 58-foot-high peak is shared by parts of five of the course's holes, and, as any local will attest, it qualifies as a mountain in this flat-as-a-pancake terrain.
"He decided he wanted the finest golf course and clubhouse in the Southern United States," Mathews says of Chensoff. No small order, considering the South is home to places like Pinehurst, Harbour Town and, of course, Augusta National.
"But," Mathews continues, "not built like the typical Florida golf course. His passion was incredible. He visited more than 100 courses throughout the United States."
As he did, Chensoff paid particular attention to the details of those courses' clubhouses.
"It became kind of a team thing," Mathews continues. "We had an architect in Atlanta, we had an interior design firm in Atlanta, a general contractor here in Naples, Mr. Chensoff's office in Chicago, and I'm here in Naples."
And just for good measure, there was the club manager, who cast a skeptical eye on each element of the design. "[He] was saying, 'Well, everything he [Chensoff] wants won't work,'" Mathews chuckles.
"So, I got put into the position of being a consultant. I mean, what we did is not rocket science from the standpoint of the physical capability of doing it," he notes. "It's developing the techniques, sourcing old materials, old finishing techniques, old hardware."
The more research he did, the more integral Mathews' role became. He found himself being asked his opinions on everything from bricks and cobblestones for the clubhouse's exterior to the antique marble and octagonal black-and-white floor tile, from the early 1900s, used in the private shower/washrooms which line the front wall of the men's locker room.
Mathews was involved in the specifying and design of interior and exterior doors to meet Florida hurricane and local fire codes. And then there's the leather, laid as a floor in the small wet bar off the library, near the building's main entrance. That's right - leather. On the floor. (No golf spikes beyond this point!)
Oh, and in that library? Clear chestnut imported from Belgium - it comprises the floors, wainscoting, bookcases, coffered ceilings and crown mouldings.
Making it happen
Mathews isn't kidding about his consultative approach; he developed some incredible sources of supply and component work out of sheer necessity.
Clearly, for a project the scale of Calusa Pines, Naples Wood Products needed help.
In addition to Federal Millwork in Ft. Lauderdale, Mathews cites Damar Manufacturing in Ocala, FL; Eggers Industries in Neenah, WI; and the Mocksville, NC, mill of States Industries as standouts among the many sources he tapped for the project.
Just as Federal did yeoman's work on the men's locker doors (for details, see the accompanying story at left), it was Damar that really came through on the ladies' side of the clubhouse. There, high-quality factory-painted work, including custom-designed locker doors, exterior beaded paneling, mouldings, wainscot and crown, combined to create a decidedly non-smelly-socks, brightly lit environment.
Eggers brought its talents to the project by producing nearly $35,000 worth of doors and frames, many of them 21?4 inches thick with 90-minute fire ratings, custom veneered in cypress and knotty pine.
States, through distributor Quality Plywood Specialties in Tampa, provided 3,300 pieces for the men's locker cabinet interiors. "I said, 'I want #3, #4 veneers,'" Mathews says. "'I want them random width, random matched. I want six or eight flitches of veneer laid up on plywood, and I want it in cherry.' And they looked at me like I was some kind of a nut!"
But they delivered. "They pre-banded, pre-finished, pre-cut and pre-bored," Mathews says, adding that the pre-boring included holes for the cherry closet rods inside each locker. States also made 900 pieces for the women's locker cabinets in natural maple.
Mathews also had Southern yellow pine and cypress to buy. He chose Griffis Lumber in northern Florida as sole supplier of more than 30,000 board feet of cypress to assure consistent #2 grading in all thicknesses. Griffis shipped the lumber to various sub-manufacturers of doors, beams, columns and mouldings, who in turn sent it to Mathews' shop for hand planing, scraping and finishing prior to installation, most notably as box beams and ceilings inside the two-story men's locker room.
There also was custom hardware to specify and source. The hinges on the icebox-style doors in the men's clubhouse back bar are one very small, striking example. "We wound up getting custom-made hinges," Mathews says. "He [Chensoff] wanted the look of old icebox hinges, but they couldn't be in chrome; they had to be in antique brass."
Trouble is, that type of hinge was never made in anything other than polished chrome; the beautiful brass versions, custom crafted by Classic Brass Works of Fort Lauderdale, came in at $80 each.
Mathews estimates that he researched between 18 and 24 different sources of supply, "between lumber and hardware and sub-manufacturers and cabinet doors."
Also in the Naples Wood Products contract was the installation of all the woodwork, cabinetry and lockers. Mathews had up to 17 installers and carpenters working at the clubhouse on any given day. Total man-hours on the installation alone approached 6,000.
Such massive coordination may sound even more blood-boiling than keeping everything under one's own roof, but to Mathews, it was a welcome change. To hear him tell it, he is practically retired. Though he is constantly on the go, his golf clubs are always in his car with him.
"I think this is something that, as a profession, is available to other people in this industry as we get older," he says. "I've always felt the potential of being a design/fabricate source to be a great retirement.
"Any AWI firm could have done this project in a heartbeat," he says, "if they could figure out how to do it or have the nerve to do it, and have that - I keep using the word 'passion.' But that's the word Mr. Chensoff uses: 'If you don't have the passion for where we're going with this thing,' he said, 'then get the hell off the train, because you're occupying a seat.'"
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